November 20, 2019

High Holy Days: Dreams as sweet as honey

With nothing but shrubbery and fractures of light, the fierce Mojave Desert may seem to lack the abundance needed to sustain a hive of bees, yet it still manages to produce some of the best honey in California. 

Like the insects themselves, this desert’s sunbeams are hard to direct: The temperature rises as the Mojave dips 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley, a far echo from the Sierra Nevada timberline or the orange poppies of the high desert. But extremes mean nothing to the resourceful bees that recognize the potential in every wildflower. 

Beekeepers in Olancha, an unincorporated community in the foothills of the Eastern Sierra, cultivate honey that bees make from the nectar of local flora such as desert marigold, verbena and evening primrose. Packaged in mason jars, the dark, amber honey looks more like molasses than anything one might associate with traditional honey. The stuff doesn’t hang on the spoon. Instead, it pulls and drips like light syrup and, when shallow, runs rose gold. 

I discovered it when I pulled off U.S. 395 to a small, white brick bungalow with windows plastered with travelers’ stickers. (I was originally alerted to its location by a sign on the side of the road that reads, “Really Good! Fresh Jerky, 24 Miles Ahead in Olancha.”) The cool insides of the old, crumbling store revealed packages of fresh pistachios, almonds and fruit; shelves of olive oils; walls of jerky from free-range and wild animals.

There’s always a tourist who wants to know if the place has a website so he can send the stuff to all of his friends (“,” the lone cashier says between yawns). There’s always a group of city children who beg for the honey sticks at the counter. 

Taste is a subjective thing, so I can’t say my experience with wildflower honey will be the same as yours. To me, it tastes like warm caramel stirred in rosewater. Another part of my brain says it tastes like Monet’s garden at Giverny. The honeysuckle that grew on the gates of my elementary school, the stems plucked out and savored. A nice thought before a deep sleep. 

Yes, the stuff sticks in the valleys between your fingers. Yes, it’s hard to cleanse from your tablecloth and your children. But it stays with me long after a spoonful, a feeling that can only be sweated out in the heat of the low desert. 

In another desert, long ago, the manna that rained down on languishing Israelites was said to taste like “wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). They savored it on their way to a land that was “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8) — although this honey may have come from dates rather than bees. Throughout Jewish tradition, honey has represented a visceral, transporting sweetness that extends far beyond the momentary fix that modern processed sugar provides us. 

Our standard for the experience of honey, it seems, has diminished over the years, a phenomenon best exemplified by a squeezable plastic bear. It is no longer the euphoria-inducing delicacy of the ancient world. The honey packets in the lunchroom are no longer associated with the eternal love of the Song of Songs (“Your lips, my bride, drip honey; Honey and milk are under your tongue, And the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon”). 

But the partaking of honey on Rosh Hashanah is a community ritual, one that brings each of our minds back to a unique and unfiltered past. The Mojave and its wildflowers in particular reconnect us with honey’s illustrious history and the joys of the desert. Research is beginning to show that honey made from local wildflowers may aid in the prevention of allergies, that exposure to the treachery of nature through a spoonful of sweetness might prevent future discomfort. 

I wouldn’t go so far to say that wildflower honey could prepare a person for life, but I will say that it has helped me reflect on mine. It has become something I look forward to every summer as I make my way to the mountains to fish. And I always save a jar for Rosh Hashanah to share with my family, hoping that new memories will stick.